Worldwide teacher

Emma Dejong

After lifetime of teaching near and far, former SDSU professor begins new chapter 

“I live a very random life. You have to understand that. I always tell people they should plan their lives, and yet …”

Zeno Wicks trailed off. He was describing an experience he’d had in China, and he started reminiscing.

“I was walking down the street, and there was this guy who was about 6 feet 6 (inches) and black,” he said. “And I walked up to him and said to him, ‘It’s obvious to me that you’re not Chinese.’ And he said to me in French, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English.’”

“I said, ‘You know, I actually speak some French myself.’”

Wicks learned the language about 25 years ago when he was in the Peace Corps.

The two men continued talking, and Wicks soon discovered this tall, seemingly out-of-place black man was the son of the Ambassador to China from Mali, Africa.

It was this conversation that led to an eight-year relationship between western Africa and SDSU.

“I’m notorious for the statement, ‘never say no,’” Wicks said. “… and I’ve had a great life because of it.”

More than three decades at SDSU

Wicks served the university as a professor, adviser, initiator, mentor and friend. After 31 years, he resigned.

In 1980 he started teaching statistics, which he continued to teach through his final semester. Many have said they are thankful for the time Wicks dedicated to students.

Barry Dunn, now the dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, was Wicks’ student for a year in 1997 for graduate statistics.

“He worked so hard to help me as an individual,” Dunn said. “…I think it was Veterans Day of 1997. I went to his house in the afternoon, and he went over the material with me one-on-one.”

Wicks also taught crop production and plant breeding. It was through plant breeding that he applied his philosophy to teach content and test abilities.

“As many people who know me will tell you, I’m absolutely adamant in terms of being able to talk and write and those kinds of things,” he said.

And those were the most important and applicable skills for students to learn, Wicks said.

“I designed my class – mostly my laboratories – around communication,” Wicks said. “You’ve got the content of the lab, but you had to report it based on communication ability.”

He had his students write letters to the editor expressing the importance of their particular field, rather than simply sticking to in-class work.

“I just could have a blast reading them because every single one of them was different,” Wicks said. “It wasn’t the same old thing.”

For Students’ Association President Mark York, Wicks was a professor and adviser. York emphasized how Wicks “puts so much time into students.”

“People always say that you’re not going to get the personal attention at a school like South Dakota State,” he said. “I think Zeno really bucked that.”

But teaching wasn’t always in his plans

“I was going to be a doctor,” Wicks said. “I did pre-med. I did very well, but I felt like my brain was full so I went and did the Peace Corps to sort of rest.”

And that’s what he did. He graduated from the University of Vermont with high grades and got into medical school, but he knew it wasn’t the right field for him.

“To be honest I found out I don’t like sick people,” he said. “I don’t like people who whine or complain, and so I realized I wouldn’t be a very good doctor.”

After a year of serving in the Peace Corps, Wicks went to graduate school at North Dakota State University for plant breeding. This is where he met Jim Hammond, who Wicks described as the man who, “certainly, intellectually, had the greatest influence on me of all time.”

Hammond is a professor in the Plant Science Department at NDSU, and he was Wicks’ adviser.

“When Zeno was interested in grad school he contacted my department chair, and we got him into a program,” Hammond said. “He was very focused, and he knew what he wanted to do.”

Hammond said he and Wicks became good friends, adding that they still keep in touch.

In 1977, Wicks married his wife Roxanne – four days after Elvis Presley died, he added.

“So I never have to worry about how long I’ve been married … it’s always a great reminder,” he said.

Bringing South Dakota to Africa

Wicks’ passion for seeing the world never diminished.

In the late 90s Wicks taught statistics for a semester in China as part of an exchange agreement. Because of the Malian ambassador’s son, who he met while taking a walk, Wicks ended up applying for a Fulbright Scholarship to go to Mali. But at the last minute the University of Mali shut down.

“About a month before I was supposed to leave, they said, ‘your Fulbright scholarship is cancelled,’” Wicks said.

The state department told him they could send him to another location since he had already been approved. He found out seven different countries wanted him.

“They said … ‘We don’t get very many people who speak French and are in agriculture,’” he said.

The Fulbright program asked him to go to the Ivory Coast, which is adjacent to Ghana in West Africa. He was there a year on sabbatical, and his family visited him intermittently. Part of his mission was to establish opportunities for America tied to Mali.

“So part of my thing was to work on associations with the university as well as opportunities for students from South Dakota State to go there,” Wicks said. “[What] I did, was plan a course to see and do things in Africa. … The university thought it was a pretty good idea.”

After his year as a Fulbright scholar, Wicks went back to West Africa with three other educators to plan the course: Fred Cholick, who was the dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at the time; Robert Watrel, who is an associate professor in geography; and Jonathan Jenks, who is a distinguished professor in natural resource management.

“The four of us had put together a proposal and the university had sort of ways for planning trips,” Wicks said. “[We] went over and spent two months planning this trip.”

The planning was successful, largely because of Wicks’ Fulbright and Peace Corps experience. To accommodate the diversity of student travelers, they structured it so students would register based on interest, rather than major.

“We asked them to design a set of questions that they wanted answers to,” Wicks said. “It was going to be their goal to focus on doing man-on-the-street interviews and talking to our chauffeurs. Their responsibility was to take their questions and either get answers or realize that they had a bunch of dumb questions and revamp their questions.”

Wicks said they have taken the trip eight times, missing only one year. The number of students ranged from 26 to 33, and various faculty members went each year.

But now, Wicks said he isn’t sure the trip will continue.

“Things come and go,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about a university.”

As an advisor

Wicks spent eight years advising SA and 10 years advising the Delta Chi fraternity.

“Students’ Association,” Wicks said, taking a pause. “Wow, what a riot. I just had a blast.”

York said Wicks has had a huge influence on his life. About a year and a half after being in Wicks’ classroom as a freshman, he approached York.

York reminisced: “He’s like, ‘What are you doing for lunch on Wednesday?’ I’m like, ‘A lot of things.’ He said, ‘I’ll see you for lunch on Wednesday.”

And from there, Wicks has continued to invest time in York – as well as countless other students – challenging him to step out of his comfort zone and take opportunities.

Wicks said the experience a student gets by being in the Senate is “as big a piece of school as anything else we do here.”

“These are the people who are ending up running things,” he said. “Let’s make sure we don’t curtail what’s going on there.”

York said Wicks was always for the students.

“He would say, ‘I’m not here to represent the faculty. I’m not here to represent the administration. I’m here to represent the students,’” York said.

Wicks helped found Delta Chi, and it is based on three principles: personal development, leadership and international understanding.

“We (as a university) were not doing enough to explain to students about the opportunities in the upper Midwest,” Wicks said. “We tried to figure out a vehicle to do that.”

York is also a member of Delta Chi, and he’s learned alot from Wicks in this organization as well. One specific thing he learned is the importance of knowing people.

“He’s a heck of a networker,” York said. “He has everyone from Gov. Daugaard to all the Board of Regents to Al Kurtenbach in his phone.”

York added that Wicks uses those connections to help students advance.

York also said that Wicks is a strong promoter of sacrificing a little money during college to gain experience, which will be beneficial in the long run.

“Understand that this is school, and you’re here to learn,” Wicks said. “Everything you do should be focused on your school. To work at Applebee’s – to work in a job – you’re losing money.”

It’s a message he preached to all his students:

“Clearly understand the difference between investing your time versus investing your expenses,” Wicks said.

On to a new chapter

Wicks said he is who he is today “because of this great university.”

“If I had 50 lives to live, I might live teaching at SDSU until I died,” he said. “But I’ve only got one.”

And in this new phase of his life, he plans on spending time with his family.

“The number-one reason I’m retired is my grandkids moved back to town,” he said.

Wicks is looking forward to a new business opportunity as well, but he’s not yet ready to make anything public.

“There’s a lot of promise, and it’s very exciting,” Wicks said. “And that’s why I stopped (at SDSU).”

Dunn worked with Wicks for more than a year, and he said he’s sad to see Wicks go.

“He’s one of the most unique and interesting people I’ve ever known,” Dunn said. “And I mean that in a positive way. … He would just bop in with that blast of energy, and I’ll miss that a lot.”

Dunn said Wicks has the ability to tell people what he thinks without holding back.

“That honest feedback was good for all of us,” Dunn said. “I think we’ll miss that Zeno perspective on the world. Because I think that was good for us to hear and good for us to know.”

Wicks said his time with friends, faculty and students at SDSU is maybe best described in the words of Frank Sinatra.

“Regrets? Yeah, I have a few, then again, too few to mention. I lived it my way.”